The female protestors in Iran have received a lot of positive press recently. Not only did they win Time magazine’s 2022 Person of the Year reader poll, they were also named the magazine’s 2022 Heroes of the Year.
Their bravery, even in the face of death — a number of them are being tortured and killed — has gained the attention of the world.
Recenty, the New York Times did a piece on how so many women are ditching their head coverings, the police aren’t bothering to arrest them. The issue here at GetReligion, of course, is whether journalists are coving the role that debates about specific Islamic traditions and laws are playing in all of this.
An engineer strode onstage at an event in Tehran, wearing tight pants and a stylish shirt, and clutching a microphone in one hand. Her long brown hair, tied in a ponytail, swung freely behind her, uncovered, in open defiance of Iran’s strict hijab law.
“I am Zeinab Kazempour,” she told the convention of Iran’s professional association of engineers. She condemned the group for supporting the hijab rules, and then she marched offstage, removing a scarf from around her neck and tossing it to the floor under a giant image of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The packed auditorium erupted in cheers, claps and whistles. A video of Ms. Kazempour went viral on social media and local news sites, making her the latest champion for many Iranians in a growing, open challenge to the hijab law.
Something has cracked wide open in the consciousness of Persian women.
Recently I’ve been fascinated by the refusal by Iranian women to wear head coverings. I’ve checked out Iranian activist Masih Alinejad’s “The Wind in My Hair” and Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh’s “Captive in Iran,” the latter about these two Christian women’s 259-day stay in Evin, Iran’s most notorious prison, to get a feel for what women experience in this sad and terrifying country.
Both give a snapshot of what it’s like to live in a real-life “Handmaid’s Tale” society.
Iranians are the most beautiful people in the world. Take a look at so many of their men and their truly gorgeous women and it’s clear these descendants of ancient Persia have a mixture of classic and exotic beauty seen nowhere else.
Many of these women know that, which is one reason they’ve chafed at having to veil themselves underneath hijabs ever since the early 1980s. All that changed last September when a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested by the morality police and ended up dead, sparking riots nationwide that are still going on.
Women are suddenly flaunting their hair: left long and flowing in the malls; tied in a bun on the streets; styled into bobs on public transportation; and pulled into ponytails at schools and on university campuses, according to interviews with women in Iran as well as photographs and videos online. While these acts of defiance are rarer in more conservative areas, they are increasingly being seen in towns and cities.
The era of forced hijab is over, the piece says.
Iran’s hijab law mandates that women and girls over 9 cover their hair, and that they hide the curves of their bodies under long, loose robes.
Wait — it’s not just that. The hijab law is rooted in the Quran, providing support for those who make this tradition a religious requirement. Although the Quran itself is very vague on specific women’s clothing, a whole culture within Islam has arisen that mandates how women should be covered, down to color, style and thickness, with an obsessive quality that doesn’t allow one hair from a woman’s head to peek out.
Iran claims to be an Islamic republic. Therefore its strictures attempt to define how the Quran would look if lived out in real life. And women are the ones on which these rules fall. We’re not just talking hijabs, we’re talking about an all-encompassing system depriving women of basic rights. Many are married against their will; others are trapped in abusive and dangerous marriages because under Islam, men can easily get a divorce. Women can’t.
The war against hijabs is a captivating one and the Times does a good job of describing how women across the country are refusing to wear the veil and getting away with it. Some of the more sinister aspects aren’t being brought up.
For instance, Alinejad just survived a murder attempt (in Brooklyn, N.Y. no less) in January. And has anyone been following the story — that has been in progress for weeks — about school-aged girls in western Iran (nearly the holy city of Qom) being poisoned as retaliation against some of them taking part in anti-hijab protests?
This BBC story says hundreds of girls have been poisoned. Take a look at some of the photos including the one showing unveiled girls giving the finger to a photo of Iranian mullahs. Take a look too at this BBC story about the teenagers that have died during recent protests around Iran. Teenagers, folks.
This is a battle to the death. And the Times has in the past covered how the regime is killing teenagers who dare to speak up.
Back to the current Times story:
The authorities recently shut down two pharmacies, one in Tehran and another in the northern city of Amol, after female employees were reported for not wearing a hijab. And in the religious city of Qum, they reprimanded the manager of a bank for catering to clients without hijabs…
One conservative lawmaker has said that alternative enforcement methods are being considered, like warning women by text message, denying them civic services or blocking their bank accounts.
“Head scarves will be back on women’s heads,” the lawmaker, Hossein Jalali, was reported as saying in December on Iranian media.
But, why? Other than putting the blame on the current “religious dictatorship” in Iran, the Times doesn’t really explore why these leaders are so manic about covering up their women. Why are the very foundations of their religion at stake over a matter of how women dress? I see few, if any, attempting to do basic reporting in an attempt to explain this.
In “Captive in Iran,” the authors say mandatory hijab is part of the scaffolding of female oppression that is part and parcel of the state religion. I quote from the 12th chapter, which talks about the execution of one Zeynab Nazarzadeh, a young girl who was so abused by her husband, she killed him in self defense.
“Anyone who says Islam is a religion of peace and equality should spend a week with the prisoners of Evin. Poor defenseless Zeynab! Married against her will while scarcely in her teens – in the Islamic tradition. Beaten and abused from the beginning by her husband, who acted with impunity – in the Islamic tradition. Denied any fair chance of escaping her abuse by legal means – in the Islamic tradition. Denied a lawyer, her life dependent on the whim of her husband’s angry relatives, who likely helped arrange the marriage in the first place – in the Islamic tradition.”
In other words, you cannot talk about women defying a religious practice — wearing the hijab — without explaining what religious doctrines, traditions and rules cause this conflict in the first place.
What happens in a theocracy like Iran is never just culture. It’s always religious, and that’s where the Times story lets us down in not explaining the Islamic roots of it all. Why avoid these basic facts?
It does say the hijab law is “a symbol of Iran’s success in establishing the Islamic Republic,” as if — again — the very religious identity of a state turns on how its women dress. In the future, it’d help to say this is a religious battle even more than a cultural one, which is why the mullahs will never back down.
FIRST IMAGE: Part of the Time magazine “heroes of the year” cover, drawn from Twitter.